On June 24, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood Freedom and Justice Party was named the winner of the Egyptian presidential election. He is the first civilian elected president in Egypt’s long history.
Morsi also is the first Islamist to get to the presidential palace, and the first Egyptian president with the name Mohammed as an actual first name (Hosni Mubarak and Anwar Sadat injected the name for Islamic flavor). He is the first Egyptian president to have earned an actual doctoral degree, and the first to win election with less than 90 percent of the vote (he got 51.7 percent).
He is the first Egyptian president educated at a U.S. university. And in the arena of religion symbolism, Morsi brought the beard for the first time into the presidential palace.
But the one “first” that will get the West’s and especially Americans’ attention, is that Morsi’s wife, as Egypt’s first lady, will wear traditional Islamic dress, abaya — full-coverage hijab.
Since she will be with us in that role for at least the next four years, let me introduce you to Najla Mahmoud. She was born in Cairo in 1962. She is Morsi’s first cousin (don’t panic — they do it in Texas); they were married in 1979. The couple has four sons and a daughter.
Egypt’s new first lady lived in the United States with her husband while he studied at the University of Southern California. She has been an active member of the Brotherhood for many years, alongside running multiple charity projects, particularly in education, and working as a translator. She is a very different first lady, even by Egyptian standards. She got a fair amount of ridiculous coverage from Egyptian liberal media and so called secular Egyptians. Some even questioned whether she is fit to represent Egypt.
Her image has become the subject of a rancorous debate on websites and in newspapers. A column in the newspaper El Fagr asked sarcastically: How could she receive world leaders and still adhere to her traditional Islamic standards of modesty? “Don’t look at her. Don’t shake hands with her,” the paper suggested, calling it a “comic scenario.”
Traditionally, the role of the Egyptian first lady is to be invisible. Mubarak’s wife lived in the shadow of her projected strong leader, running charity organizations and meeting dignitaries — until the ex-dictator lost interest and the first lady took over running the country’s domestic affairs.
According to a recent interview in one of the Egyptian papers, the new first lady does not even like the title, saying, “Islam taught us that the next president is the first servant of Egypt; this means that his wife is also the servant of Egypt. Any title that has been forced upon us must be gone with, it should disappear from my political and social dictionary.”
She sees herself first in women’s traditional role and foremost as a mother. In an interview with the Egyptian press, she admitted that she preferred to be called “Em Ahmed” (mother of Ahmed) above any other title. The former first lady never would have accepted being called “Em Gamal,” while at the same time was she grooming her own son Gamal to take over Egypt after her ailing husband showed deep signs of dictatorial boredom.
Mahmoud can hold her own and handles media intrusion with such ease , when a photography asked if he can take a photo of her; “on condition that you make me look good and slimmer” she jokily said. In an interview with «Voice of America» considering Copts in Egypt, she explained «We live in one nation, because Islam does not differentiate between a Muslim and a Christian, on the contrary, because the Islamic religion us to the equal rights of the Christian with a Muslim in the same country », I have a good relations with Christian women in their surroundings. She added.
And on her husband the person « he is balanced and very serious», adding that he has the mentality of a political, and continued: «After the marriage has lasted for more than 30 years, I can not say that someone Comedy, may have a sense of humor, but seriously most of the time and trying to be amusing from time to time ». “ he helped in the house choir and Cooks for me’” … our fights usually last no more than a few minutes” she added.
Former first ladies spent a great deal of money on their appearance and on making Western fashion statements. The new first lady will have none of it; she will have only one fashion statement to make, the hijab. The full-length Islamic dress will be the one representation of postrevolution Egypt. This won’t be too hard for most Egyptian women to follow (Muslim ones as well as Christians); most of them already wear some kind of head cover. Dalia Saber, 36, an engineering lecturer, said, “She looks like my mother; she looks like my husband’s mother; she probably looks like your mother and everybody else’s.”
The West has a fixation on Muslim dress. Its view of hijab — mostly a colonial one — is as a symbol of the oppression of women. As if the billions of dollars spent by the fashion industry to tell Western women what to wear is not oppressive. The cause of liberating Muslim women has been used by the West to invade Muslim countries and take down their so-called oppressive leaders. For most Western feminists, and liberal men, the freedom of women turned into freedom to get women.
This racist attitude toward Muslim women’s traditional dress, still prevalent in parts of the West, is often hidden behind the veil of secularism.
“I wear hijab to be part of a faith, not a part of fashion” explained a young French Muslim woman, responding to the question of why she covered her beautiful hair.
So just as America’s first black first lady brought gardening and fitness to the White House, having a hijabi first lady in Egypt may bring a new attitude toward Muslim women, and a new understanding of Muslim dress.
Ahmed Tharwat is a public speaker and hosts the Arab-American show “Belahdan” at 10:30 p.m. Saturdays on Twin Cities Public Television. He blogs at www.ahmediatv.com.